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Ambitious 'Empire' Falters

By Ryan J. Meehan, Crimson Staff Writer

It’s impossible to say whether or not the most vivid image in all of “Inland Empire,” which ran for three nights last weekend in Adams House, was that of a hypnotized dance between two players inexplicably bound to one another at the groin by a rope to the modulated sounds of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The scene unfolds against the bare stage-space of Adams Pool Theatre, its figures held in high relief by harsh white light. They embrace, tumble to the floor; suddenly the woman, bearing a knife, kills her partner. Her flight from the scene is cut short by the cord that refuses to relinquish its hold, despite her wordless desperation, and she looks on in horror as her extinguished lover comes alive again to reel her back into his arms. Off to the side, the ‘singer’ hands the microphone to another performer, who continues the unsettling lip-synching act. When the anxiety of it all seems to have reached its limit, the scene is interrupted by a sound offstage and the players—actors playing actors, acting in the scene that has just unfolded—break their ‘performance’ and exit.

It’s impossible to call this one act definitive because this reviewer has not seen all of them. “Inland Empire,” directed by Ilinca Radulian ’11 and inspired by material from David Lynch’s film of the same name, is a purposefully fragmented theatrical experience. Mapped out across the various spaces of Adams House, the piece as a whole consists of three parallel narratives. Members of the audience are asked to choose which of the threads they want to follow, and it behooves them to stick with that choice until the end. The belief that these three stories apparently shift into one another at times throughout the painstakingly-coordinated hour of the performance requires something of a leap of faith for the viewer: “Inland Empire” is not so much a story as it is the persistent deferral of a narrative center. Ultimately, each scene isn’t a development of a plot per se, but a variation on the theme of performance that Radulian places front and center from the outset: the performance of the theater, the performance of gender and sexuality, the performance of subjective identity or sanity.

Radulian evidently sympathizes with Lynch’s ambivalence on these matters, as well as the psychoanalytic and surrealist modes he uses to interrogate them. Condensed within each of these tableaux vivants are traces of the Lacanian: the play of drive and desire, alienation and identification, violence both symbolic and actual. The wedding dress—a paradoxical signifier of chastity and the marriage bed, of the maternal and its performance—is the prescribed uniform for all the female performers, and occasionally of the males as well. Drawn closer still from Lynch’s work is the piece’s dialogue, whose ellipsis and rehearsed emptiness sabotage direct communication in order to plumb a fundamentally absent diegetic order. In philosophy, “Inland Empire” bears a family resemblance to the American Repertory Theater’s production of Punchdrunk’s “Sleep No More.” Both are interested in puncturing—albeit playfully—the boundary between performer and audience. The use of unconventional performance spaces like a resident’s dorm room or a music practice room creates an aura of intimacy and of chance, as if the things the viewers see are happening not just in front of them but for them.

Ambitious in theory, the piece is shakier in its execution. Novel though these spaces and their organization might be, something of the atmosphere’s sinister quality is lost in the shuffle of audience members to properly place themselves in rooms that are often poorly lit, especially when breaks in the choreography occur. Similarly, Adams residents passing through or studying in places where these scenes occur tended to draw attention to an element of silliness in the production, against which formidably straight-faced performers were helpless. Limitations on resources and available space are the way of student theater, but for a production with otherwise professional aspirations, such a major oversight is lethal.

And professional it remains, for the most part. As important as its synchronicity is the production’s choreography of gestures, mapped by David F. “Ricky” Kuperman ’11, which gives pace to the eeriness of each scene and elevates the brokenness of communication in the world of the play from the verbal to the physical. For her improvisational courage during a rather long and potentially monotonous slog through an Adams tunnel to the final scene, Rheeqrheeq A. Chainey ’11 deserves a special commendation; creative thinking like hers provided a saving grace for potentially embarrassing moments in the performance. Isabel Q. Carey ’12, Eli E. Kahn ’13, and Dan J. Giles ’13 all play to their marks as the contorted Hollywood tropes—the femme fatale, the tall dark lead, and the double-talking agent—that characterize Lynch’s best-known work. Would that it were possible to hear them, see them, arrest them all on stage and avoid the muddle of undue darkness and words lost in the shuffle of the audience’s falling footsteps.

Perhaps it’s more of a compliment than a criticism to say that a piece of this scale belongs on the Loeb Drama Center’s Mainstage, not in the tunnels beneath Adams House. Ultimately, the moments where “Inland Empire” crystallizes are too few and far between to justify a structure whose inaccessibility and string of logistical woes hamper what would otherwise be a genuinely compelling theatrical experience. “The Space Between,” which ran on the Mainstage in 2009, comes to mind as a similarly high-concept production for which the stage was not just a boon but an essential component in its success. Lynch’s film is something of a white whale in the filmic discourse of the last decade, a work whose enigma other filmmakers have yet to follow. The demands of an engagement with the film—if not a strict adaptation—go beyond the vision of its director or the dedication of its cast, which “Inland Empire” surely doesn’t lack. They amount to the full, material commitment to a sustained encounter with the surreal.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.

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